Strawberry Girl was the first novel I read by children’s book author and illustrator Lois Lenski (October 14, 1893 – September 11, 1974). I read the book in the fifth grade in secret, because with its pink cover, not to mention title, was girly. At the time, I was in the process of reading books that had the Newbery Award, regardless of content. There were some duds in that bunch. For instance, I could not get into Dr. Doolittle by Hugh Lofting, due to the archaic language and the fact that there was a stereotypical black character.
Strawberry Girl’s synopsis sounded girly, too. According to the back cover blurb, Birdie Boyer is a plucky ten-year old heroine in turn of the century Florida who oversees a crop of strawberries in the hopes of winning some Four H-styled prize. The actual story is somewhat darker. It’s about a Hatfield vs McCoyesque feud between the Boyer’s neighbors, who are in reality, squatters. The father, in particular, is a drunken lout with rage issues. The mother is not much better. The Boyers, by contrast, are one class above them, and while not educated, per se, have strong bourgeois values and a Puritan work ethic. The neighbors don’t resort to violence. Instead, they use criminal mischief, such as ignoring property boundaries and destroying crops. The neighbor’s son is the lone good egg in the family, and with the help of Birdie, tames his wild streak. The families enter into an uneasy truce, thanks to the friendship between the two kids. The story is accompanied by the author’s stark, black-and-white illustrations that have the austere quality of folk art.
I ended up reading other Lenski books that year. Her regional series followed the lives of children in various US locales. Most of the scenarios dealt with poverty in some form or another. Appalachia is explored in Blue Ridge Billy. Judy’s Journey is about migrant workers. She even dealt with racism in a book that I only heard about, entitled Mama Hattie’s Girl, which features an all-African American (or in the parlance of the time, Negro) cast. Yet another novel is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Lenski was prolific, writing and illustrating many picture books, historical novels and even songbooks. Her focus on poverty and effects on children make her a kind of children’s lit version of John Steinbeck.
Much of her work is out of print. This past summer, I volunteered for my local library (MLK Public Library here in DC), and I had the pleasure of working with the Rare Children’s Book Collection. Many Lenski works are housed in there.
It’s a shame that more of her stuff isn’t in print. Her focus on the vulnerable left an impresseion my young mind, and made me empathetic and curious about the lives of others.